Beauty may or may not lie in the eyes of the beholder, but ugliness most certainly lay in the hearts of those who set the yardsticks of beauty.

Tired of all the walking, around 8 p.m., I looked for a seat. Anyone familiar with the Dadar railway station at this hour on a weekday will know only someone inexplicably optimistic or plain naïve would aspire for a place to sit. When people hardly have place to stand comfortably, sitting's a far cry! Not that there are no seats, but there are only as many seats as there are and that's grossly insufficient. And by some mysterious ordination the seats are always taken by a few lucky people who never make place for the less fortunate ones who just look at the occupied seats — at times longingly and at other times with frustration, but always with a sense of submission.

About 30 minutes of seeking got me a place on a bench with a middle aged man and an old woman. Stenchat Dadar is an omnipresent phenomenon but this particular spot had it some degrees higher and that, I concluded, added to its mild unpopularity. Given the pain growing up my legs, I made a willing compromise.

I settled down and heaved a contented sigh, knowing it was now my turn to look around feeling privileged.

In front of me, I saw a bunch of sewer rats scurrying around on the filthy track nibbling away at some invisible morsels of food. Every time a train headlight shone in the distance I wondered if I'd be witness to the gory end of a lowly life unlucky enough to find itself scavenging in the way of the huge steel and power juggernaut rushing down. Amazingly, every time they managed to melt into the dark crevices of the black stone platform just in the nick of time as if they never existed.

The man boarded a train, leaving me and the old lady on the bench. The crowds having thinned out by 9.30, no claimant came forward to take the empty seat. The novelty of the rodents' hide and seek wore off and I turned my attention to something more important pulling out my laptop and trying to take myself out from the place I was in. But hardly had my laptop booted, when I realised that my latest endeavour resulted in quite the opposite.

The steel blue screen had got the ugly woman sharing my bench, mighty interested. Before you take offence to ‘ugly,' an elaboration will be in order. The woman was in an old greenish sari draped in the old dhoti-like fashion of passing a stroke under the legs. She'd been sitting in an uncouth manner with one leg upright and bent at the knees while the other lay flat and significantly exposed. Chewing on a wad of crimson bolus, she spat out a mouthful of slimy betel juice every now and then. For the bigger discharges she hobbled to the platform's edge, while for the smaller ones she just turned in her seat and spat on the wall. Her face was horribly pitted and bore remembrance to a severe attack of pox. Her left eye socket was empty, the skin stitched into the lower rim making up for a missing eye.

I'd ignored her at first but the laptop caught her fancy and she craned her neck, peering in inquisitively while the sweetish spicy scent of paan-zarda struck my nostrils. Soon I realised she wasn't the only one. A water bottle hawker, clad in khaki shorts and shirt and with a village-idiot haircut, had edged in unnoticed behind the bench and was peering into the screen over my shoulders. Passing in front of the bench, a few other vendors caught sight of potential entertainment and started coming up to him pretending they had something important to say only to take a peek at the screen. Of course, the lack of moving pictures made them lose interest soon — one even enquired “Saab can we see pictures (movies) on this?”

I recomposed myself and went back to the letter.

Hardly a moment had gone by, when the hawker standing behind me suddenly yelled “COLD DRINK PANI BOTTLE” at an incoming train, making me jump out of my skin. Angry at his impertinence, I shook my head with a mix of admonition and submission but he was gone rushing at the oncoming train as if there was no tomorrow, rending the air with his calls.

I'd barely recovered when the woman tapped on my shoulder. “Ye dekhenge kya jara do minit?” (Will you watch this for me for a minute), she pointed to a sack lying near her feet. Almost immediately my mind jumped to imagining a bomb — it's not such a rare thing in Mumbai after all! Perhaps despite my best efforts to mask it, the gullibility inside me shows up and the cunning woman was now out to con me. The sentence, “Sorry. You look after your own things” was just about forming in my mouth when I found her walking off towards the tea stall nearby. She had obviously misconstrued my few seconds of hesitation as acceptance of her request.

She took five steps and looked back at her sack, making sure it was still there. Another two steps and she did it again. What? She actually thinks I'm going to make off with her sack? I am the one suspecting her of being a cunning saboteur and she thinks I'm a petty thief? Good heavens! My vanity rebelled. Damning the woman and her sack, I buried my nose in reviewing the letter.

The vendor came back panting from a session of running up and down. A younger but equally sweaty water vendor walked up and recounted to him in rapid rustic Hindi that he'd managed to sell only two bottles of water in the past three trains, and not a single cold drink. The first vendor shook his head in empathy and the boy moved on hurling abuses at providence.

I bought myself a bottle and the vendor squatted down beside the bench and flicked out a big handkerchief to mop his face. I took a sip of the cold water and he pulled out his sachet of tobacco and lime and got busy wringing himself some relaxation.

The woman came back with a replenished stock and I realised that the tea stall was doing a side business of tobacco concoctions.

A well-heeled Gujarati woman accompanied by her son came to our bench enquiring if the Ahmedabad train was to leave from that platform. I gave a blank and confused look, as I had no idea. “Amdabad passenger na?” the woman butted in, “Yes, yes it leaves from this platform. It's supposed to be at five to eleven but today it will be late by 10 minutes. Saurashtra came late na, that's why. Where do you want to get down?”

“Err...Maninagar...”

“I'm also going there. It comes just after Vatva. Nothing to worry. Sit here. You're travelling in the ladies compartment na?”

I don't know whether it was her ugliness or talkativeness or both, but the mother-son duo moved on with a look of revulsion in their faces.

“Look at her stupidity. She's travelling alone, shouldn't she sit here with me instead of going elsewhere. It is so unsafe otherwise,” she shook her head looking at the duo walking away. “Perhaps she dislikes my look,” she added thoughtfully.

The battery of my laptop had gone dead and all I could see in the black glass was my own face.

The well-heeled woman had in no uncertain terms let Sitabai know that she found her loathsome for her obvious ugliness, rough manners. She found it revolting to even sit beside her. Worse, Sitabai was well aware of it. But that didn't stop Sitabai from caring about the fellow woman because she felt it was her natural duty to care.

I threw my vanities on to the dirty track and got into a long talk with her. We spoke in our native Marathi but she kept dropping in Gujarati words. She told me how after her schooling up to class V in Jalgaon she was married off to a mill worker in Mumbai. Soon after their marriage, her husband was left jobless and he became a drunkard dying of cancer leaving her three children — aged 5, 3, and three months. Her father had given her considerable gold in dowry but her husband's expensive treatment took it all. Even before his death, she used to sell vegetables in the Worli market to run her home but things became unmanageable in Mumbai after the tragedy. She migrated to Gujarat with a relative's help and took to working in a cloth mill. She worked for many years on contract until her vision became poor and her employers asked her to leave. She then took to buying cloth in Gujarat wholesale markets, reselling them in the weekly markets of Mumbai.

“How old are you,” I asked.

“I don't really know because there is no record,” the visibly 60-plus woman grinned through her stained teeth. “Of course, my age makes itself felt in my aching knees nowadays when travelling”

As her story progressed, my throat felt lumpy and aching and my eyes floundered.

Thankfully Sitabai's cheer came to my rescue when she said: “I have four grandsons you know! Another one is coming soon and am praying for a girl. Only a mother knows the joy of having a daughter!”

“Your sons are all grown up and you stay with them, why do you still work?”

“If God lets me have my way, I'll work till my dying day. You know it's all good till I earn. I can buy the women and children gifts with my own money and that keeps my prestige intact. As it is, I have earned for myself all my life, so why give it up now?”

As I lay on the dark upper berth that night, my mind replayed the stories gone by. The stories about how beauty may or may not lie in the eyes of the beholder, but ugliness most certainly lay in the hearts of those who set the yardsticks of beauty; how our society is just like the station at 8 o'clock where only a handful get to be comfortable while the rest look on and curse their fates; how some scavenge sustenance from sources which many would consider revolting; how they must either get out of the way and make themselves invisible or be crushed under the wheels of the juggernaut which our society is riding.

(The writer's email id is siddharthyaroy@gmail.com)

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